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Schools not dangerous, report says

Cory Fisher

According to new data on school crime, California schools are safer than many people believe.

“Our schools, in fact, are generally safer places for our students to be than their surrounding communities,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin in a report released Thursday. “At the same time, any crime or violence on campuses is too much; our goal is zero tolerance. We want our students to be able to learn and study without fear and distractions.”

The 1995-96 California Safe Schools Assessment is the result of 1995 legislation requiring school districts to compile statistics on school crime. Public schools have not formally gathered data on school crime since 1988, said Eastin, which may have contributed to the assumption that schools are particularly dangerous places.

Among the report’s main findings were:

— Property crimes – including arson, burglary, graffiti, theft and vandalism – made up about 34 percent of all reported crimes, costing the state $22.7 million for 1995-96.

— Crimes against people comprised roughly 28 percent, which include assault with a deadly weapon, battery, homicide, robbery/extortion and sex offenses.

— 26 percent of all crimes reported involved the use, possession or sale of drugs or alcohol, including the possession of related paraphernalia.

— Other miscellaneous crimes including possession of weapons, bomb threats, explosives, loitering and trespassing amounted to roughly 13 percent.

Because the program is new, however, both Eastin and local school officials warned against drawing comparisons among districts. Spot checks statewide have suggested that not all schools are reporting similar incidents in the same way.

“This first study is really a pilot study,” said Lake Tahoe Unified School District Superintendent Rich Fischer. “I think we need to be very careful about making comparisons. Different districts seem to have interpreted their reporting responsibilities very differently.”

Superintendents around the state are echoing the same sentiments.

For example, districts that were more meticulous or aggressive in their reporting of incidents may appear to have a higher crime rate. Fischer said this may explain why some smaller rural districts – like Lake Tahoe Unified – appear to have a higher crime rate than some larger urban districts. Remarkably, both the Oakland and Los Angeles districts are shown to have crime rates significantly lower than the state average.

Under state guidelines, an incident involving a kindergartner biting another kindergartner would fall under the category of assault with a deadly weapon, Fischer said. In addition, fire crackers and pocket knives would be reported under explosives and possession of weapons, respectively. While one district may report all of these, another may deem some “not serious enough.”

“Lake Tahoe Unified kept close track,” said Assistant Superintendent and expulsion hearing officer Rich Alexander. “We knew we could be audited for this information, so we wanted to be very accurate. In our district, I don’t think crimes are higher, but the amount of people getting caught has gone up. We’ve stepped up adult supervision at both the middle school and the high school.” Expulsions and suspensions totaled 60 last year, said Alexander, with 42 so far this year.

Last year, the district spent $2,489 of its $30 million annual budget on crime, with nine reported property crime incidents. Students are required to pay for damage if caught, said Fischer. In addition, there were 46 reported crimes against people, 49 drug and alcohol offenses and 14 miscellaneous infractions, 10 of which were possession of weapons – none of them guns.

With an enrollment of 5,845 last year, incidents amounted to 2 percent of the entire student body, some of whom were repeat offenders.

While in violation of the education code, Alexander said roughly 75 percent of reported incidents could not be prosecuted in court.

“I prefer to look at the positive side,” said Fischer. “I’m pretty happy with the fact that 98 percent of our students didn’t do anything wrong.”

According to a 1996 State of the District report, LTUSD parents who responded to a survey gave the schools a 4.3 for school safety on a scale of 5.

“Most parents feel our schools are safe and that’s encouraging,” said Fischer. “It’s always been our goal to create a climate that is conducive to learning.”

The district’s zero tolerance policy may appear harsh at times, said Alexander, but it has paid off. “Our zero tolerance stance hasn’t necessarily made us popular,” said Alexander. “But we’re tough and supervision is excellent.”

Not that there isn’t room for improvement, said Fischer.

“I think the information from this report will prove useful in terms of comparing our own data with other years in the future,” he said. “It will help to hold people accountable. After three or four years we should start seeing certain trends.”

In order to more efficiently compile districtwide information, Fischer said they plan to computerize the reporting of crime incidents next year. Information can then be transferred electronically from each school to the district office.


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